Sunday, January 15, 2006

Re: Stossel and Belgian Education

I watched John Stossel's 20/20 piece called "Stupid in America" this afternoon, and what strikes me (other than his strident call for competition) is his at-best-disengenuous, at-worst-ignorant lack of a look at differences between the Belgian system of education and our own here in the States. He insists that Belgian schools compete in the open market, and that such a system would solve all that ails ours as well.

I'm fortunate to have been able to attend school in Belgium for a year: long enough to not only develop significant fluency in another language, but to also develop an appreciation for the culture, the education system it drives, and some of the differences between "over there" and "over here." I don't honestly believe we, as a nation, are prepared to embrace all of those differences, even in the spirit of fostering competition. Here's why:

First, envision a national teacher union, a national teacher contract, and a national right to strike. Think you can talk states like Texas and Nevada out of banning the right to strike to a NATIONAL teacher's union? Collaterally, of course, teacher salaries are established according to that national contract. Stossel berated "a union-government" monopoly on public education, but glossed over this "little" detail in the Belgian not-so-fine print: all those "competetive" schools pay their teachers according to the national contract, not according to local desires or needs.

Now, imagine trying to pass a national law that will impact all teachers without actually getting teacher input. Can you see all the schools in the entire nation shut down because the teachers wouldn't tolerate that? We're not talking a local teachers' strike. We're talking every single school in the "teachers-be-damned" nation shut down. The Belgian teachers did it most recently in 1996, from the end of February through the end of the school year.

Second, understand that Belgian schools do not provide transportation. You can choose a school 20 miles from home, but even if you live within three miles, there will be no yellow bus ferrying your kids at the public's expense. A very dependable system of public transportation will, however, provide regular-traveler discounts. If turning your child over to public transportation isn't something you feel comfortable with, you're on your own. Consequently, at least until "secondary" school, parents tend to keep their kids at the school closest to home.

I beg your indulgence as I get to number three: the Belgian school week was something of a shock to this American. I was used to seven classes (including study-hall), five days a week. Start at about 8 A.M., finish around 3:30 P.M. I had the same seven-class schedule every day, week in and week out.

Imagine my first Monday: Start at 8 A.M., go to four classes, leave at noon to go home for the noon meal. Get back at 2:00 P.M. for three more classes, and finish up at 5 P.M. to return home for the day. The school did NOT provide any meals whatsoever - we had two hours to get home, enjoy the biggest meal of the day with our family, and get back for the rest of the school day.

Tuesday was an equal shock: Start at 8 A.M. again, but five classes straight through to 1 P.M. and we were done for the day.

Wednesday echoed Tuesday: 8-1 and out.

Thursday and Friday had the same hours as Monday. Saturday was the same as Tuesday and Wednesday. Pick your jaw back up off the floor and adjust: we had five hours of school on Saturday.

So on to number three: in those 36 hours of class time, I had no course that met more than four times, but took 16 different courses. Two were four meetings a week, one was only one time, the other 13 were either two or three hours a week. Only twice did I have the same course back-to-back (two hours straight, on paper, but with a "passing-period" between). Three were foreign-language courses (and yes, I cheated. I took English as my second foreign language). No study-hall. That's what those afternoons off were for.

Somewhere here (and this seems the appropriate spot) I should mention that they aren't called "foreign languages" in Belgium: they're "modern languages." If you consider that Belgium was politically created as a buffer zone between Holland and France, by taking part of each country centuries ago, and then adding on a small chunk of Germany after WWII, you might well understand that Belgium has three official languages, none of them "foreign": French, Dutch, and German.

Fourth, the Belgian system made no pretense that all kids were the same, that they all needed the same education just because they had access to it. Mr. Stossel in his 20/20 piece suggests by omission that all Belgian schools attempt to provide the same opportunities to their students. Nothing, quite frankly, could be less true. Belgium does a much better job than we do of acknowledging that one doesn't necessarily need a college degree to inherit and run the family business. The courses you need for that can just as easily be taught in "high school." But if you want to be an architect, you don't need all those marketing and accounting classes either. In either case, you need some understanding of the concepts involved in the other's instance to have a truly well-rounded education, but you CAN actually specialize your secondary education so that if you have no need for university-level studies to accomplish your dream, you don't HAVE to prepare yourself for them.

And Belgian schools take that into account. Some are very, very good at preparing students to manage small businesses. Others are truly excellent at preparing students for a variety of pursuits requiring advanced degrees. Yet others do a marvelous job of preparing auto mechanics (for Peugots and Saabs and BMWs and Ferraris and for many makes we never, ever see on this side of the Atlantic). But none of them tries so hard to be everything to all people as we do with our public schools in this country.

Then we deal with the fact that a student in Belgium who begins on one track may not finish there: a test in eighth grade that determines whether the student is allowed to stay on a purely academic track or whether a "vocational track" might be more appropriate. Same kind of test at the end of tenth grade. If you reach your junior year in an "academic" school, you've demonstrated your right to be there. I wonder which sort of student group Stossel used for his comparison. I don't believe it was anywhere near as homogenous a group as the New Jersey students.

Stossel suggests that the schools in a Belgian city are in competition for students; at the secondary level that's only partially true. They each seek to develop, and perhaps expand, their niches, but none of them is after EVERY student. Before we swallow his bait clear back to the hook, we need to ask ourselves some very serious questions.

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Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

What do you expect from Stossel? Research? Accountability?

Ha. Even if he DOES look like my beloved. He opens his mouth and sounds like Chalton Heston on helium.

8:48 PM  
Blogger MommaK said...

Thanks for your insight. I saw the show and had no idea about the other side of it all. This was very interesting.

2:05 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I also spent a year in the Belgian school system: I was in (the equivalent of) 7th grade in 1970-1971. So many of your comments ring true. But some things have changed...

We had the same schedule as you, but we only had Wednesday and Saturday afternoons off: Tuesdays were a full day. The teachers must have negotiated an extra half-day since I left!

I'm curious as to the curriculum you were in: I was in (what was then called) "Sixieme Latine" ("Sixth Latin"), which--under the then system--was the first year of secondary school (they counted down from six to one). My classes varied from one period a week (gym and swimming) up to NINE periods a week (latin), with most courses (French, Dutch, math) being four or five periods a week.

As to "modern" languages: that's just to distinguish them from "ancient" languages (Latin and greek). In those days, the most "scholarly" curriculum was "Latin-Greek" (emphasis on the classics), followed by "Latin-Math" and "Latin-Sciences". Next down in the hierarchy (bear in mind, this is a sociological hierarchy, not an economic one!) were the "Modern" sections, which didn't teach Latin or Greek. Finally, there were the "Technical" sections, which--as was indicated above--were more vocational training and didn't necessarily go all six years.

As far as competition goes: there were parents who were willing to go to great lengths to send their kids to what they considered good schools. I went to a Catholic school in Liege, the College St.-Louis, which had a rep as being academically outstanding (in those days the Catholic system was considered far superior to the secular state system of "Athenees" [Athenaeums]), and several of my classmates came from small towns deep in the Ardennes: they had a two hour or longer commute, by public transportation, every day, in each direction.

But much of the competition was also to other, non-academic aspects: I knew a couple who lived outside of Liege, and they had the choice of two nearby schools, one larger and more academically challenging, and the other smaller and perhaps less rigorous. They sent one boy to one and the other to the other. Try that here in the states!

One aspect which may or may not have been covered elsewhere: there was no distinction between secular schools and religiously-affiliated ones. They all got state subsidies, and--as previously mentioned--the (Catholic) Colleges were generally considered superior to the (secular) Athenees. I believe that Protestant, Jewish and Muslim schools were also allowed subsidies, though--having never actually encountered one while I was there--I can't swear to it.

Having not seen the Stossel report, i can't intelligently comment on it. But if we were to go to a system of state funding for education that didn't distinguish between "public" and "religious" schools; that allowed parents to decide where their kids shoudl go, rather than having the decision made by arbitrary geographical boundaries (and even more arbitrary busing...); and where the dollars followed the student--IOW, a fully-funded voucher system, with open enrollment--I can't see how that wouldn't be an improvement over what we have now.

As some have observed, we've had school choice in this country for years: just not for the poor.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Mike in Texas said...

One thing Stoessel didn't mention was what school the Belgian students were from, even though he was very careful to ID where the American students were from. That made me suspicious from the start.

He also didn't mention Texas SAT scores when he was accusing the teachers' unions of being responsible for South Carolina's low scores. Texas was 2nd worst to SC, and as you know, teacher's unions can't really exist as unions in Texas

5:37 PM  
Blogger Al said...

David, thank you. You triggered a marvelous dance down memory lane that may well last for several posts.

Mike, I detect a Flemish accent, so I want to say they're from northern Belgium. But I can't swear to it, as my ear is getting rusty. And yes, Texas is not a hotbed for teachers'-union activity. But by gawd it's ripe.

MommaK, glad you stopped by. There's more to my family than the Lab. But he's big-time important. Thanks for your contributions to the lighter side (or at least the willing-to-laugh side). You shoulda won it outright. No votes, no nothing. Just MommaK on top. Alone.

Ms. Cornelius. What can I say, young lady? I know neither your beloved nor Charleston Heston. I feel more diminished by not knowing your beloved. Anyone can refuse to have a gun pried from them (including me, hehe).

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are you so full of shit about the Belgian educational system? When did you supposedly study here?

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:55 PM  

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